Friday, May 30, 2008

@edu at Google Docs!

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to guest-blog at Official Google Docs Blog, and today my first post appears. I'm very excited and honored to be able to discuss innovative uses of docs and forms in this forum, particularly for education, and hope you will join me there. The blog features useful tips, product announcements, and great ideas from users all over the web, and is an indispensable source for my teaching ideas.

If you're new to using forms, you might like a chance to see firsthand how they work. Go ahead and take the quiz below, and then I'll provide a link so you can see how your results were entered into a document/spreadsheet.

If you'd like to see how your responses compare to my 'students,' click here. All responses are collected into one document, making it easy to grade as well as see what needs going over.

With forms, Google has invented a tool with endless utility. It will change the way you think about assessing your students' work.

For more detailed instructions on how to put forms together for quizzes, see these posts: striking serendipity, and call forms anything you like, just call them.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

the art of science

Surfing the web is an exercise in making connections. We are immersed in what seems like a vast sea of chaotic noise, yet find ourselves congregating around those intersections of dialog from which form a synthesis of great ideas. Two days ago, I clicked on a New York Times article, New Curriculum to Unite Art and Science, which had climbed in popularity so much that it appeared on NYT's top ten list of most-read articles. Obviously, the concept appeals to many. Author Natalie Angier writes about the battle between the sciences and the humanities:
It’s been some 50 years since the physicist-turned-novelist C.P. Snow delivered his famous “Two Cultures” lecture at the University of Cambridge, in which he decried the “gulf of mutual incomprehension,” the “hostility and dislike” that divided the world’s “natural scientists,” its chemists, engineers, physicists and biologists, from its “literary intellectuals,” a group that, by Snow’s reckoning, included pretty much everyone who wasn’t a scientist. His critique set off a frenzy of hand-wringing that continues to this day, particularly in the United States, as educators, policymakers and other observers bemoan the Balkanization of knowledge, the scientific illiteracy of the general public and the chronic academic turf wars that are all too easily lampooned.

Binghamton University in New York has developed the New Humanities Initiative to counteract the split, not only to bridge understanding between two warring factions, but to encourage cross-curricular learning: we each have something to learn from the other.

As a huge fan of cross-curricular teaching, I believe using language arts to help students relate to science brings a bounty of understanding to both subjects. So, I was very excited to find this blog post from Munna on the run about an artist from London who has always loved the idea of physics more than the practice of it. Munna wrote poems about physics, but failed--miserably--at exams, while a student. It wasn't until later that the author was able to bridge the literary with the physical. Staying grounded in the poetics, Munna uses the 26 letters of the alphabet as symbolic placeholders for intensive physics training. Here's an example: (click on the image to see it larger)
You can view the entire alphabet here. This is how the project came about:
Many years later, in 2005, I decided that I wanted to try my hand at creating some kind of art. And all I could think of was Physics. Because 2005 happened to be the World Year of Physics. A celebration of 100 years of the theory of relativity.
I had this wild idea of creating typography from physics diagrams. After months of research and going through hundreds of those, I finally got hold of 26 diagrams that looked liked the letters of the alphabet. This poster literally transported me into a parallel universe.

Lesson Plan
Let's say you've got a class of roughly 26 students. Have each student take one of Munna's letters to create a cross-curricular project. First, research the concept the letter represents. Synthesize those ideas onto Google documents or presentation slides. If you have students working in pairs on a couple of letters, they can share those documents and you can monitor their progress. Finally, they can demonstrate what they've learned by presenting
the concepts behind the art to their classmates.

Scientific illiteracy takes a bow and exits the stage. All I can say is, it's in the air, this idea of connecting in order to bridge knowledge.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

book list: the game

In a previous post, must reads, I wrote about how I was challenged to read more books to better my reading score on the "1001 books to read before you die" list. I was bitten by the competitive bug, and it reminded me of the single-minded determination I see on the faces of teens as they struggle to beat a level of a video game. I suggested that we create a list of books recommended by high schoolers, and set it up in a spreadsheet so that they can keep their own score of how many books they've read, competing with themselves, against the list.

Voila: the completed reading list: High School Recommended Reads. It's been compiled into a Google spreadsheet that contains the tracking formulas. For your own use, make a copy of the spreadsheet and give it a whirl. Enter in an "R" for the books you've read and watch the yellow row formulate your total and the percentage of books you've read. Here's a picture of what the spreadsheet looks like:
Once you've played around with it a bit, you can delete these books, and enter the books and authors that your students recommend. Better yet, you can let your students make the entries themselves using a Google form:

It might be too late to use for this semester, but perhaps you could suggest a summer reading list?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

how tall is that?

Last week I was listening to KNX 1070 news radio while sitting in traffic. The weather was slightly cloudy with a bit of a breeze around me, but a listener from another county was telling the newscaster about how he'd just seen a tornado overhead. The fact that there was a tornado in Southern California was disconcerting, but it was how he described it that left my mind reeling. When the newscaster asked how big the tornado was, he answered with hardly a pause: "I'd say it was about 300 feet tall, and 3 city blocks wide." Forget the tornado, this was astounding to me. I got the '3 city blocks wide' reference; I've seen that, so I can relate. But how could he make such a quick estimate of 300 feet tall?

If you're a spacially-challenged person, like I am, your mind probably draws a blank anytime there is a reference to a really big (or, really small) measurement. 300 feet tall: how big is that?

Sensible units to the rescue. Fill in a measurement, and sensible units will spit out 3 comparisons to help us visualize how much.
How does this help our students? We recognize the importance of reading comprehension. Basically, where there is no inner visualization, or even questioning of meaning when one reads a word or term, there is no neuronal activity. No learning takes place. If we give our students convenient tools to enhance their understandings, we can help them keep those neurons firing, seeking connections.

I'm glad sensible units offers three analogies. I've seen those London buses, lots of them in a line, and I can imagine a big stack of African elephants. But a stretched out human small intestine?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Phoenix has landed!

Great news! The Phoenix Mars Lander has landed safely on the surface of Mars, and projected its first live images at about 7pm Sunday evening. I watched the entire event on NASA TV, and rather than flipping through channels with a remote control, I flipped through Firefox tabs to check out various interactive and informational displays on NASA's site, as well as offerings from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. New images and follow-up will be broadcast on NASA TV Monday morning at 11:00 am PDT.

Lesson Plan
Of course, we can involve our students in this highly relevant and exciting accomplishment, no matter what subject we're teaching. English teachers, have your students write a journalistic piece, highlighting the objectives and timeline of the mission. Start with the Phoenix Mars Lander section of the JPL site. NASA has more here.

Have your students compile their information onto a Google doc or slideshow presentation, linking to images, videos, and interactive exercises. Ask them to share the document or slideshow with you so that you can offer feedback. When their projects are complete, they will publish them and send you the link through a Google docs form.

There are few thrills greater than a first live, close-up viewing of a distant planet--it never gets old.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

In my sights: Google Sites

If you're still searching for the perfect internet platform for your class announcements and lessons, you need to check out Google Sites, a wonderful web portal for the classroom.

First, a little history. A couple of years ago Google acquired Jotspot, a wiki application. Back in February, the developed application was released for Google Apps users as Google Sites. Now, Google Sites is available for anyone to use.

I've set up an @edu site, as a place where I can keep all of my lesson plans, discussions, and the various media attached to them. Google Sites easily incorporates documents, photos, videos, slideshows, and a host of gadgets, which is one of the reasons I'm so impressed with it. Another reason is that its intuitive interface is very easy to use.

I hope you'll visit my @edu Google site often, as I will continue to update it with insights and lesson plans from my blog. It still needs a bit of work, but it already feels like home.

Here is Google's video, introducing Google Sites:

Friday, May 23, 2008


It's close enough to the end of the school year that even though you are terribly busy, you're starting to think about the time of freedom to come: warm summer skies, barefoot walks on the beach, picnics, time to catch up on your reading . . . .

Actually, you can start that reading now, no more procrastination. If you can read an email or an online news article, you can read a book. That's how DailyLit convinced me to start reading James Joyce's Ulysses. Each post takes about 3-5 minutes to complete, and we have the option to request the next installment immediately. If daily seems too much, you can set it for weekdays only, or 3 days a week. Ulysses is a big book, and even at the daily rate it will take me the better part of a year to complete it, but complete it I will!

You have your choice of feed: email or feedreader. (Note that Google Reader refreshes once an hour, so if you request the next installment immediately upon finishing the one that's been posted, it might not show up for a bit.)

You say you hate to read online? Don't worry; DailyLit's text interface is highly readable and easy to follow.

And it's free. While there is a charge for newer books, hundreds of classical titles, such as Ulysses, are free.

So, get reading. There really are no more excuses.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

powerful embeds

Here's a new web application that I think will really appeal to students: Sprout. [If you are reading this on a feed reader, please click through to my site, so you can see this amazing product in action.] It allows users to build a sophisticated gadget or site based on flash technology. If you're familiar with flash, you know that the effects are fantastic. I've often wished I could integrate flash technology into my lessons, but the programming is not easily accessible.

Enter Sprout. Click on the tabs at the bottom of my Will Shakespeare Sprout. Check out the slideshow gallery of photos. I copied a quick bio from Wikipedia to add to the about tab, and embedded a sonnet reading on video. My favorite, however, is an RSS feed from Mr. William Shakespeare's blog. You didn't know he kept a blog, did you?

I've got some great ideas for Sprout that I'll be showing you in future posts. First, however, let me say this. While most web 2.0 apps are incredibly easy to use, Sprout is more complicated. In fact, I found it to be somewhat non-intuitive and clunky. However, the results are worth the effort. Just be sure to give your students plenty of time to play around with it if you are integrating sprout-building into a lesson.

Feel free to play around with my Shakespeare sprout. If you want, you can even take it home with you!

Lord of the Flies features a video game for readers of Lord of the Flies. The game is a bit simplistic, but provides students with a fun way to test their understanding of the characters, themes, and symbols. There is also some biographical information about author William Golding.

Before we even crack the cover of the book, I like to give my students a survival quiz. They generally feel pretty confident they could survive away from civilization, until they take a quiz--it's a real eye-opener!

Discovery Channel has an interactive survival quiz that also provides lots of useful information in case you ever find yourself on a deserted island. (Sounds good right about now, doesn't it?)

By complete coincidence, today my PBS:Nova RSS feed featured "Lord of the Ants," a series of videos hosted by naturalist O.E. Wilson. Ready for some cross-curricular fun? Assign one of the videos in order to compare the ants' behavior to that of the boys on the island. And, of course, there is an interactive game at this site as well!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Lone Heart Mountain

For those of you teaching sections on Japanese internment during World War II, in conjunction with Farewell to Manzanar or Snow Falling on Cedars, Calisphere offers lesson plans that include a wealth of original sources and artwork:

Artist Estelle Ishigo, the European American wife of a Japanese American, was among the American citizens forced out of California during World War II. Ishigo and her husband, Arthur, were first sent to Pomona Assembly Center and later to Heart Mountain Relocation Center, in a remote area of Wyoming. There, Estelle Ishigo continued her work as a painter. Students reflect on Ishigo's personal letters, artwork, and official documents to relate the themes of tolerance and prejudice to the era, understand that media plays a part in propaganda, and learn how artists convey thoughts and emotions through art.

Ishigo's artwork is beautiful, and her insightful diaries are proof of the spirit's strength over adversity.

The internet provides easy access to in-depth research into original sources from library and museum collections from all over the world. Calisphere bills itself as "the University of California's free public gateway to a world of primary sources. More than 150,000 digitized items — including photographs, documents, newspaper pages, political cartoons, works of art, diaries, transcribed oral histories, advertising, and other unique cultural artifacts."

It's a wonderful source; check it out.